Works in the Public Domain

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For a through explanation of this area of law, check out The Public Domain.

Material that is not protected under copyright (or other proprietary laws) is free for the public to use and is considered to be in the public domain. Short phrases and ideas, for example are in the public domain. Works of authorship, that are otherwise copyrightable, also may be in the public domain. There are several ways by which works of authorship may become public domain material.

Expired Copyright.

Copyrights expire after a limited number of years. The period of copyright depends upon the nature of authorship and the year of creation or publication. Once a copyright has expired, it falls into the public domain. These include

  • Copyrights of all works that were published before 1923 in the United States have expired, meaning that all of these works are in the public domain.
  • Works that were published after 1922 but that were published before 1978 are protected for a sum of 95 years from the initial date of publication. If the work was created before 1978 but was not published before 1978, then the copyright lasts for the author's life plus a total of 70 years.
  • For works that were published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the duration of the creator's life plus an additional 70 years, however there is an exception. If the work is a work for hire, such as work that was completed in the course of employment or work that was commissioned specifically, or if the work was published anonymously or under a pen name or pseudonym, then the copyright lasts from between 95 and 120 years depending on when the work was actually published.
  • Finally, if the work was published between the years 1923 and 1963, then you must check with the United States copyright office in order to figure out whether or not the copyright was renewed properly. If the author did not succeed in renewing the copyright, then the work has likely fallen into the public domain, meaning that it can be used. (The Copyright Office maintains online renewal records. Check the U.S. Copyright Office website.)

Forfeited Copyright.

If an author fails to follow certain copyright formalities, a court may deliberately forfeit the copyright protection and place the work in the public domain. For example, thousands of films such as It's a Wonderful Life, and   have been placed in the public domain because of a failure to renew copyright or follow registration formality. These films can be reproduced without paying royalties.

Dedicated Works.

Sometimes an author deliberately chooses not to use copyright to protect a work. The author may dedicate the work to the public and place it in the public domain. For example, some companies sell art work (known as clip art) on computer disks or in books and permit anyone to copy it freely. Artists may clip these works and use the individual artwork, although they would not be permitted to reproduce the unique manner in which the art work is collected in a book or on a disk.

Works Created By U.S. Government Employees.

Any work created by an U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain provided that such work is created in that person's official capacity. This rule does not apply to state or local government employees. For example, during the 1980's a songwriter used words from a speech by then President Ronald Reagan as the basis for song lyrics. The words are in the public domain and no royalty would be owed to Ronald Reagan.

Determining Public Domain Status.

Determining whether a work is in the public domain requires research. The Copyright Office does not maintain a list of public domain works. However, some attorneys and private companies can perform searches and furnish public domain reports. 

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